Fossicking Amongst the Fossils

Recently, a birthday was had. Usually on this day, the Teen and I head off to Stratford upon Avon where we wander, lunch and drift down to the river for ice cream, via the RSC so I can buy a year’s supply of “2B or not 2B” pencils, because I do enjoy a pun when I scribble.  This year though, when the realisation that we weren’t going to stay by the sea dawned on us, it felt like a break from tradition was called for.

Now, living in the land-locked, land-lubbering West Midlands, the options for a daytrip to a coastal region are limited. We wanted to hear, smell and maybe even splash in the sea. That could be done at Weston, but you know, Weston. I haven’t been there since I was terrorised by a man in a bad flannelette Mickey Mouse costume on the sea front, after a coach trip (I loathe coaches) on the wettest and windiest day of the year. It was the 80s, there was a Club Tropicana in a prominent location and all I could hear was that bloody song. It took me a long time to forgive George Michael that assault on my ears.

Plus we wanted a nice beach, not a shit mudflat masquerading as a beach. So. Not Weston then.

Luckily, I found somewhere that was a mere 2 hours drive from home, was rocky and pebbly and sandy with intriguing cliffs that looked like giants had been layering themselves some mille-feuille for their afternoon tea. The night before, there was some extensive Googling of routes and writing of clear instructions because I am determined to conquer my reliance on a satnav and the Teen is not yet experienced enough to read a map.

Neither am I, come to that. All that geography gets in the way of the road.

We set off at a reasonable hour – it was still term time, so no need to beat the holiday traffic – enjoyed the stretch of baby motorway that is the M50 with the compilation CD from my previous birthday playing loudly and me asking regularly “what junction again” and the Teen singing back the number. We skirted Newport, me with a shudder as I remembered going to a Suede gig there over 20 years ago. We had tickets and pulled up in the town with the idea of booking a room in a hotel for the night.

I don’t know if you have ever been to Newport (and I’m sure it has it’s fine points) but even the then-boyfriend (who had been a biker and attended several Bulldog rallies, which are hardly tea dances) blanched and drove us out of there fast. We stayed at Chepstow, which is gentler on the eye and has a giant castle guarding it to boot. Went back for the gig, obvs. No way I was going to miss Brett Anderson swinging his androgynous funky thang.

Right on estimated AA map time, we arrived and decamped ourselves to a sunny outcrop of rock. Yes, rock. Sometimes it pays to take advice, especially about tide times. This rock was to be our base until about 2pm, when the tide receded enough for us to pick our tentative way over more rocks (which do not stay flat and steady underfoot but tip-top and shift as you place a cautious toe on them) to the patch of sand.

But there were rock pools to gaze in and watch tiny fish dart like silver arrows through gently waving seaweed.

Surprisingly, it was not on the rocks that I twisted my ankle, but in the car park, as we walked up to get ice cream. Gazing off to the horizon and wondering if that was an Iron Age hillfort ahead (it was), I failed to do what should always be my first task: scan the ground in front of me. Over went my ankle in the only pothole in the entire car park. The only reason it wasn’t a sprain is because that wasn’t my first time. More like my 50th. That ankle is now so loose and resigned to twisting, it’s a wonder I’m ever upright.

But I didn’t really care about the lack of sand or the twisted ankle or the ever-numbing arse from the rock we were sat on, because there was this view. And the smell and the sound of the sea. There were sandwiches that didn’t have sand in them (bonus points to the pebbly shore), and ice cream and real coffee from the tiny cafe. No chips, but you can’t have everything, and this was enough.

On went the suncream, out came the books and down the pair of us settled, conversation drifting along with the tide. Ebb and flow. After a while, I asked the Teen to bring out their A Level book-smarts and tell me more about the rocks because, actually, geology is pretty bloody cool. Especially when you discover that what’s lying by your feet are the trace remains of creatures

Their footprints are right next to yours. Their shadows are in your shadow. Those millenia old creatures scuttered, got trapped, died. Left the memory of themselves for you to find.

I find this FASCINATING…

And these here, these giant mille-feuille? Particles of minerals, plant and microscopic animal matter drift down to the bottom of the long-ago sea, get compressed by the weight of the water. The seas pull back, dry up, reduce enough to reveal these layers for us to wonder at.

And wonder we do. The top us crumbly and unstable, like old fondant icing on a slice of cake, the warning signs are everywhere. I really want to get close, poke about in those layers, find out what creatures have been left behind by ancient and modern tides. What creatures are they made of? But the friendly lifeguard issues a gently firm warning, so we stay back. Getting knocked out by a falling rock, regardless of it’s age or the fossils contained within, would really ruin the day.

I even managed to bring a pebble home that has a trilobite trace in it, which is damned exciting. I’m claiming it’s a real trilobite, the Teen is raising amused but sceptical eyebrows at me. Don’t care: my pebble, my ‘trilobite’. And on the subject of pebbles, this explains all you need to know about the pebble situation in my house.   

We drove back, skin sticky from suncream and salt spray, hair smelling of the sea, at least one ankle throbbing, to the accompanying sound of pebbles clacking rhythmically. And, I discovered later, a sunburn so potent, I looked neon for 2 weeks afterwards, followed by flakey and itchy, followed by the stage I like to call “did you miss a bit with the fake tan”, followed by a settling into a paler shade of biscuit. So much for the damn suncream. 

In which a small creature creates a medium amount of havoc…

I cannot remember a time of my life when I have not been afraid of spiders. Some of it is learned behaviour (I do after all have a mother who moves the furniture to hoover underneath on a regular basis so nothing with 8 legs can lurk underneath and creep out to surprise her at night), and some of it is an entirely rational (as far as I’m concerned) hang-over fear from humanity’s early days when spiders were as big as houses and angrier than a thwarted toddler.

You have seen the most recent King Kong film, haven’t you? See? Big Spiders. BIG. HUUUUUUGGGGEEEE. I rest my case.

Anyway, mostly these days, I manage to sit on my fears as now I’m the only adult in the house, ergo, the only person to remove said creatures. I ignore the ones in corners, chat to the spindly ones (in the hope that by being friendly, they won’t eat my face whilst I’m asleep) and have gone so far as to usher out into the garden the bigger-than-I-wish-to-cohabit-with ones, rather than reaching for the hoover and holding the nozzle with my very fingertips.

But what I really really draw the line at is finding them crawling into my cleavage. Specifically, crawling into my cleavage when I’m in a rather important meeting with Historic England and an archaeologist. So lo, when it came to pass that last Friday, I was nodding my head sagely and saying “hmm, yes, raft foundations…gable end…etc”, I felt something unusual in that direction.

Looking down, I see a spider about the size of my thumbnail (which I consider to be a considerable size in an arachnid) heading southwards. With great presence of mind, I turn to look in the direction of a particularly fine example of Tudor timber-framing, and swiftly reach in to pluck the fearless creature from my regions, flinging it away, hopefully far away.

However. I am not entirely sure I’ve got the little blighter. I cannot rummage around in there to check. I couldn’t be sure I’d managed to grab it. In fact, I’m not entirely if I didn’t just squash it against myself and now have spider goo on me.

But, professional as I am, I control the rising hysterics and continue with the meeting. All the while my internal monologue sounds like this…

“Yes, yes, I can see the need for a full building condition report…there’s a spider in my dress…a heritage statement is indeed a good thing…there’s a spider in my dress…yes, of course we can go and investigate the attics…there’s a SPIDER in my dress…oh, the cellars too, why not…there’s a SPIDER¬†in my DRESS…that’s been a really useful discussion…FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS SACRED, THERE IS A FUCKING SPIDER IN MY DRESS…”

Finally the people left, I indulged in a mini-meltdown in the privacy of my own office and, when I got home, utterly failed to find the creature, which, I’ve no doubt, is now regaling its many-legged friends with tales of the giant fingers ruthlessly plucking it from its new resting spot and flinging it callously to the ground. I hope they buy it many pints of fly beer, or whatever they drink.

So far, my friends have singularly failed to buy me a restorative pint…

PS I tried to find an image of said King Kong spider but the images that came up on a Google search frankly gave me the wiggins, so you’ll have to imagine it. Plus, I hate it when people drop a spider image into a blog or twitter post, so I couldn’t do it. Have a Monty Python one instead. You’re welcome.

In Which Summer is Here, Seeds are Purchased and Cheesegasms are had.

You know how some weeks can feel like a year? As though you’re wading through the days as though through treacle? When the corners of your mouth won’t turn up despite your best efforts, and the slightest thing makes you either rage or weep? Yep, I’ve had one of those weeks. I was getting on my own nerves with it, let alone everyone else around me. The mean reds got me bad.

This happens occasionally. A hang-over from the post-natal depression that coiled around my brain and limbs 19 years ago (yep, the Teen turned 19 last month), but I refuse to dignify it with the the D-word, because I think its overused and it’s not really that. So I rage at it until it goes away. How the rage manifests or what turns out to be the trigger for sending it away changes each time. Usually good food, getting my hands in the soil and getting out of my four walls helps.

So today I made a conscious decision to soothe my soul and treat my body, not with a trip to Tiffany’s (mainly because a) there isn’t one nearby and b) I’m not now nor have ever been a Tiffany’s person…if they’d care to challenge that view that with a significant gift, I’m open to offers…) but with a trip to a farm shop I’ve shopped at as regularly as salary will allow for many years now. When I first came here, the garden was small, the coffee shop had only a few tables and the fishmonger was in a van in the car park. It’s all changed now.

It’s testament to the owner’s tenacity and passion that it’s grown to almost 3 times the size without making old semi-regulars like me feel pushed out. It’s retained its vision and atmosphere, and still feels like a massive treat to me. Something to be savoured and experienced slowly. I take my time when I come here: each purchase means something, unlike in a supermarket where I just want to get the stuff and get out before I’m signed up for yet another loyalty card.

The display garden has grown enormously, as have the teasels. They towered above my head and glinted in the sun. Bees bumbled around, as happy as, well, bees off their heads on nectar.

My dad finds my awakened interest in gardens hilarious, especially as I now live in a city and for years in the country, ignored all that green stuff that surrounded the house. Apparently an interest in gardening suddenly manifests in a person at around the age of 41, which I am in 2 weeks time. Nuts to you sir, I respond to his laughter: look at all these things, just GROWING, around us, all on their own with no input from us. Why isn’t everyone absolutely agog with wonder at the miraculous tenacity of a dandelion or runner bean?

Truth be told, I ignored all the green stuff around me back in the countryside, back in that other lifetime, because I was 22, floored by new and early motherhood, resentful (never of the baby) of my sudden loss of freedom and wrapped in a suffocating cocoon of PND. Later, when I escaped all that, the garden turned out to have the kind of heavy clay soil that makes even Gardener’s Question Time panellists suck their teeth and go “hmmmmph”, so I never really took to it. Although my climbing roses did quite well, until one day they didn’t and just died.

Anyway, back to this lifetime, a million emotional-miles away from that one, it seems difficult to realise that it’s July already. How did that happen? I’m still expecting to see asparagus in the shops (the UK stuff, not the sad, feeble-flavoured imported tack) and Easter eggs. I am informed by people both older and wiser than me, that this shift in the speed of time is because I’m getting older. I am now in the age range that makes me, according to a recent Telegraph article flagged up on Facebook by a friend that made me grit my teeth, a “perennial” but the term makes me boke, so we shan’t use that again, thank you. Note to all newspaper editors and journos: STOP creating wanky new terms for women just getting on with their LIVES, you utter cock wombles.

It’s only when I stand under the gnarly-dude mulberry tree and spot the berries, that it dawns on me that it really is summer and there is no time to lose in getting my mitts on nectarines, raspberries and apricots. Time to stop moping.

I pause in the garden shop to buy 3 plants I couldn’t resist: a yellow daisy like thing, a tall spiky thing that should have pink blossoms eventually (the hope involved in gardening is really quite touching), and a silvery short spiky thing, a baby cousin to the giant towering teasels. Also seeds – may as well keep feeding this new interest of mine, see where it leads – for a squash so bumpy and ugly it’s own mother would have trouble loving it (I am fascinated by it’s ugliness), for sorrel and broad beans, for nitrogen fixing clover so that I look like I know what I’m talking about but also because a lawn with clover in is a lawn full of happy bees and butterflies, which makes me happy.

It makes my brother in law, who tends lawns and gardens professionally, want to scream. He’s also not very approving of the moss in mine, but the moss makes it bouncy to walk on.

Then into the farm shop proper where as much as possible is sourced as near to the shop as possible. The air smells of earth, strawberries, proper bread and the tang of ripe cheese. I am more than partial to a ripe cheese – during a recent excursion to a pub with a museum friend, we coined the term “cheesegasm” for that ripple of feeling you get when a particularly ripe brie hits your tastebuds in a silky, creamy explosion and you have to pause and almost weep at the intensity of it…

Ahem. Look: broad beans picked so close, I could almost see the field.

Whilst I wait for my allotment plot to become available (upon which I will use the rest of the clover seeds to fix nitrogen into the soil, thus ensuring better soil and better crops – I do know some things, just not as much as I’d like), this will do very nicely. I filled my trolley with these, the pods feeling like velvet, plus little pointy bobby beans, whispery-skinned shallots, the tiniest of baby cucumbers and lettuce so frilled, it might be worn as a dowager duchess’s lace fichu.

I approve greatly of the lace fichu; a garment designed to provide modesty in ladies wearing the low-cut gowns of the Victorian era. Frankly, I often feel dresses need some sort of modesty vest insert, plus sleeves you can add on by means of poppers or velcro. Or, you know, dress designers that realised women came in all sorts of sizes and were not necessarily all happy with the idea of waving their bare upper arms and abundant chest to the world, so made sure they made (decent, not frumpy – I’m not quite ready for salmon-pink crimplene) clothes for them too, not just those who can wave with gay abandon.

However, vegetable heaven aside,¬† woman cannot live by greens alone, unless they are the delicately shaded green pistachio and rose layer cake (the sponge was a gorgeous minty-green) in the bakery section. Or the mini macaroons. Or the (definitely not green) strawberry cheesecake. Or the…

I tear myself away before I get thrown out for drooling on the plexiglass shield.

Whilst I valiantly resisted the lure of the above, I couldn’t withstand the siren call of the fresh-baked scones, especially as I knew I had clotted cream at home, and needed to pay late homage to National Cream Tea Day. So one of them made my lunch. There is nothing finer, after all.

It’s interesting, and slightly odd, to note that my pronunciation of the word has actually changed over the years. Initially I was a sch-oh-ner, now I’m a sc-on-er. I have no idea why, unless it was years of working with someone who pronounced it that way, but I failed to pick up on her diction for the word theatre, “the-Aa-ter”, which was her passion. Even now, I will occasionally phone her and casually ask what she’s been to see, just so I can hear her say the word that way.

See, healthy: the jam has fruit in it. And yes, jam first. I’m not a heathen, for god’s sake.

Of course, I also buy cheese: a smoked, orange-blushed number and a softly eat-me-now oozing brie to go with my crusty bread. Breakfast tomorrow morning is now catered for. Yes, I eat cheese for breakfast occasionally – there are days when muesli and yogurt just will not do it for me.

And the fruit bowl, hand turned by a woody friend of mine, is now full of the cheeky rosy glow of nectarines and apricots. The fridge has a punnet of strawberries in so ripe, that the air inside almost seems to glow with the smell of them. I think those will mostly be eaten as they are, with my fingers, brought up to room temperature, also for breakfast.

Later, I roast the piece of lamb I’ve bought with so much garlic I am currently the woman you need to call for anti-vampire patrol, rosemary (am I the only person who still doesn’t get the point of rosemary but uses it because, tradition, anyway?) and lemon. Potatoes and cherry tomatoes basting in the meat juices. Nothing like a decent feed to take you out of your funk.

There. A better cure for the mean reds than any staring in the window of a luxury jewellers, croissant in hand, immaculate black dress a little rumpled from the night before. Although I’ve no doubt that having Audrey Hepburn’s figure might help.

Should you be in the Warwickshire area, at a loose end, and with an enormous desire to shop properly, this is where you need to go. Have yourself your own cheesegasm.

Right Here, Right Now

I have reclaimed my house after an Easter visit from the Teen. They are, obviously, a delight to have around, the apple of my eye, the spring in my step and the beat of my maternal heart, and I relish every moment of their being home, especially as the gaps between them being home grow wider as they grow older.

However, as I stretch out on my sofa and my feet do not come into contact with ring binders and uncapped pens, I cast my eye over the room that does not contain pairs of giant trainers strewn about the floor in ideal tripping locations, knowing that the dishes are done, the food in the fridge will be there in the morning and the washing pile is at a normal height, not epic mountain proportions. This is also, in its own quiet way, satisfactory.

Work continues with its busyness and my social life goes through phases of quiet weeks and busy weeks. This is one of the latter, full of exhibition launches, talks on Tudor demon minds, haircuts, cinema, trip to Oxford and a German guest coming to stay at the weekend.

I also managed to fit in a trip up a hill from my Teen’s childhood, to the bluebell woods of old. I strode up the yellow brick road (in reality, a mix of gravel and flint but lets not put reality in the way of a story, shall we?) on a day when the wind either boosted me up the path or pushed me back down like a petulant child demanding that I LOOK AT IT! Except you can’t look at the wind, you can only see its effects. So I did. I paused by a handy gate to lean and watch the crops and grasses ripple, the trees shiver and bend, and the crows launch themselves, laughing, into the chaotic, cloud-chaser sky.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve visited this wood, parking at the village, slipping through the churchyard, along the path by the lake, up beyond the farm with its occasional visiting Silver Stream trailer, and carry on on on to the almost-top of the yellow brick road. Once I saw a red kite hovering casually above me. Once me and the Teen walked up here at night to watch the Perseid meteor shower. Back in the beginning, it was 4 of us: father, mother, child and dog: mismatched paces, calls and whistles, grumbles and laughs.

Then it became the three of us: mother, child and dog. The walk is quieter, more time is spent noticing things like fungi on tree trunks, fossils and flints, examining the latter to see if there are any with worked edges, but we have always found walking an ideal time for talking. Long, slow, serious conversations as they navigate the perils and pitfalls of being a human being in this complicated world.

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Then it became two: the dog and me. His fluffy pantaloons and matching tail marking the way ahead as he raced on to sniff out small mammals that might prove chasing and I walked more slowly to appreciate the scenery, occasionally coming out of my daydream to call him back.

This year, it was me setting my own pace and relishing in the freedom of it. The sense of space around me and lack of traffic noise. The wind, tweaking and harassing the branches of the trees, providing a background rush to the sound of birds singing. The sun shone, appearing bashfully from behind quickly scudding clouds, making the various shades of green glimmer on the hillside. There are two cyclists, clad in the kind of garish colour scheme normally only seen on wasps, pedalling and discussing their weight lifting sessions at the gym in loud voices: luckily they are the only people around and are soon gone, shooting up the path with a focus that seems almost rude on this lazy Sunday morning.

I carry on at my own pace, turn to the right, past the pine plantation where we used to gather pine cones for Christmas decorations and where deer could be seen moving silently between the trees, ghostly figures in shifting dust motes. Or at least we could and we did until an electric fence was set into the ground.

Walk under the giant silver birch trees that shiver and whisper their heads together, way above mine, their trunks a spectral, peeling silver. Across the stream via the two thick wooden planks that wobble just enough to give a minor thrill, the tiniest rush of “wooaa!” adrenaline and then across. Pause to watch the tree tops dance, listen to the birds sing notice of your arrival, breathe in the damp smell of mud, bluebells and a sharp top note of the last of the wild garlic.

The bluebells are still holding, still blue, still striking, still gathered and glorious. And being right there, at that moment, all on my own, with nothing but the natural surroundings, I am smiling with my whole self at the sheer bloody joy of being right there. IMG_0926

The Way of the Wellington

So I did it. I took the plunge, made the commitment, promised to be a better person, signed on the dotted line, forsook the ideas of lazy Sundays and made a step in the direction of …what? A new level-headed earthiness? Fingernails that are never clean again? So many vegetables I develop an allergy to Vitamin C?

For I’ve just signed myself up to become an allotment holder – or to become one when I finally get to the top of the waiting list. This is an announcement that has created an handful of reactions from my family and friends that have ranged from the horrified head in the hands (my Dad, no doubt imagining his own Sundays ruined as I call in a panic because the fruit cage has been breached and the bean poles have fallen down).

Some have just found it in equal parts funny and incomprehensible: “you did..what..wait..hang on..hahahaha…what?” One very close friend sent me a series of messages throughout the week:

“You’ll need one of those little padded waistcoats with a billion pockets.”

“There’s some horse poo in the lane, want me to collect it for you?”

“Soot perhaps? I could loosen some from the chimney.”

“I’ve got a sagging deck chair you could have for outside the shed.”

“What colour are your wellies? It’s no good trying to impress the old boys with spotty ones”

Others have taken it more seriously and with a surprising degree of enthusiasm, offering seeds, raspberry canes, spare shovels and advice.

If I’m honest, I don’t entirely know why I’ve done it – the act of filling in the form was one I carried out in my usual decision making state of eagerness, lack of thought and gung-ho determination that an idea of mine will obviously pan out alright in the end. It was a response to the urge I’ve been having for nearly a year now. A need to feel reconnected to the ground and seasons in a way in which, ironically, I only ever was in a passive sense when I lived in the countryside. A need to feel part of a community, settled and rooted (quite literally). A desire that I couldn’t really put a name or coherent explanation to: I want to grow things.

I want to grow the raspberries and beans and new potatoes and rhubarb that I love. I want to sit in the doorway of my shed with an enamel mug of tea, aching and blistered from turning over the neat rows of raised beds. I want to exchange seeds and watch them come slowly up from the ground. I want to commiserate with others about the weather or the carrot fly (what is carrot fly?) and join in the communal metaphorical fist shaking at pesky squirrels. I want to feel the soil under my fingers, smell the tomato plants in the sunshine and hear the sound of a spade thunking into the ground. I want to sit in the sun, patiently slicing beans into matchstick pieces like my Grandad did. I want to stand at a potting table, crumbling compost into seed trays, daydreaming. I want to plan for a year ahead. I want to have the hope that I’ll be in this place for another year.

Given my almost complete lack of experience, the visible and audible signs of disbelief and horror are understandable. My parents remember my sullen co-operation during the Summer of the Wallflowers where their pick-your-own scheme turned out to be a send-the-teenagers-out-to-pick-them scheme. I was 13 and they were trying to make their acre of ground pay for itself by growing wallflowers which people could then stop and buy. Few of the people stopping had the right shoes to deal with a field of mud and vegetation, so my sister and I would be sent out there, plastic bags and little trowels in hand. “Make sure they get good ones!” we’d hear some instantly detested Rover driver bray. I’d mutter dark thoughts in their general directions in the way only a teenager in the countryside, dressed to impress at the village youth club, can.

So I am sort of prepared for disaster. It’s entirely possible that what will happen is that I’ll blacken my thumb trying to hammer together a fruit cage that is more bird friendly than the open sky, and the nail will fall off; the heavens will open and my water butt (why is it called a butt?) will leak, or there will be a drought. I’ll put my back out digging the plot over and the previous tenants will have specialised in growing vine weevils and bindweed. I’ll forget to pinch out the tomatoes so they’ll crochet their roots and branches together in a stroppy mass of non-fruit-bearing vegetation.

I’ll discover a spider the size of my hand in the shed and not be able to go in there for 6 weeks. The raised beds will collapse. I’ll be warned by the allotment committee for inappropriate language as, for the umpteenth time, I mis-step and fall down the slope into the canal.

In a freak of nature and engineering, the canal will flood for the first time in its near 200 year history.

But until the day I move up to the top of that allotment list, I can dream and read, research and plan. I will know the right names for things and I will be able to empty a slug trap without squealing “ewwwwww ohmigod what fresh hell is arrrrghgghhhh”. And at least my wellies will be the right shade of murky, gardener green.

A Little Cheesy

Over the course of my adult life, I have gathered a small but nourishing collection of cookbooks. They sit on a shelf in the dining room, their spines marked by my attempts to cook from them, their colours and titles promising me a whole world of new flavours, expanded horizons, surprised tastebuds and wowed guests.

It’s the promise that gets me every time.

The French Kitchen; Mexican Food Made Simple; Weekend Cooking; Delia; Roast Figs, Sugar Snow; Breakfast, Lunch, Tea; a folder of a countless recipes copied down or cut out of magazines and newspapers; The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook. They all hold the promise of something better, even if it’s just a better option for dinner than toast.

It’s that same feeling of promise and better dinners that is currently drawing me ever closer to committing to something. Yes, actually putting my name down on a dotted line, making a public statement about my intentions and hopes, committing myself to spending time and money and effort…

I want an allotment. I want to grow things and dig soil and prune stuff and turn compost and weed rows of tender plants and eat raspberries straight from the cane and harvest my own vegetables in season. I want to sit in the sun with an enamel mug of tea and birds chirping around me. I want to hide in the shed with the rain drumming on the roof while I prick out seedlings. I want to have a glut. I want to pickle and jam and jar the excess. I want my friends to run away with the fear of being made to take more courgettes from me. I want soil under my fingernails, the smell of it in my nose and the weight of it on my boots.

When I was little and spending much time at my grandparents, I was convinced I was going to be a farmers wife, baking and picking fruit all day long. In between feeding lambs by hand, sliding down hay bales and scratching the big old sow with a piece of straw. As you probably tell, my ambition and grasp of a farmer’s wife’s reality was largely based on what I got to do at 8 years old, playing on the farm opposite their house.* This did not happen, but it was the earliest ambition of mine, somehow running alongside the one about writing without the need for dissemination or further thought. It was my equivalent of the standard “train driver” answer little boys would give when asked what they wanted to be.

Anyway, lack of farm and farmer aside (and not regretted – I am not made for 4am starts in blizzards with calving cows), the promise that got me baking this week was the Farmhouse cookbook and its recipe for potato scones. Not particularly high in fat (hurrah for waistline) but promising to be delicious served with chilli, soup, sausage casserole or just with cheese. So I set a casserole to cooking, and get the baking box out:

Boil 100g of peeled potatoes until soft. Drain and mash. Leave to cool.

Preheat oven to gas mark 7 (220C). Mix 50g of butter with 175g of flour with 1 tbsp of baking powder. Add the cooled mash, mix together. Add 60ml milk and stir until a dough has formed.

Roll out. Cut into circles. Place on floured baking tray. Bake for 10 minutes. Take out of oven and wonder why not raised and golden like ones in recipe book, but more like biscuits. Note that they still smell and taste amazing

Try again. Same result. Think sod it, you were aiming for the more American biscuit type of scone anyway. Discover that these flatter ones can be lightly toasted, thus extending their life. Experiment by adding thyme and Wensleydale cheese with most excellent results. Decide to try paprika and smoked cheese next time. Decide to try All The Cheeses in this recipe over the next few weeks.

*everything changes: the farm now focuses on rare breeds cows, no sheep at all; the gates are locked and padlocked, not open as they once were; the duck pond has been filled in; and the old sow has gone to the great sty in the sky. The farmer grew old, passed the farm onto his sons. The house on the rise is lived in by others who complain about the noise at milking time and the smell in summer. The village expands, contracts, expands again as barns become homes, bicycles are replaced by BMWs, the shop closes, and the latest village petition is for fibre optic broadband. This is not a criticism – things change, people move, ambitions shift.Village life adapts to new people and challenges. It always has.

Hasn’t that been a

long while since I last posted. To be honest, I’m still in two minds as to whether this gets posted or not. Do I really need another online thing to consider, what with my social media, my work’s social media and website, and e-newsletters what I write for another company?

Let’s just tap away and see how we feel as I go on, shall we?

In many ways, life has not changed that much: I’m still incapable of wearing nail varnish for longer than 24 hours without picking it off. My book buying is still out of control. I still work within the weird world of museums. I’m still socially inept and prone to saying the Wrong Thing with gusto, commitment and volume.

In another, more important way, my life has changed hugely. The Teen set their sights on university last year and in September made their intrepid way to Preston to study sport science and nutrition. Now, whilst I am overjoyed to have a family member back in the Northern bosom of our ancestors, I’m not convinced that this sudden switch to all things sporty and nutrition-y aren’t signs that they are actually a changeling.

So now I find myself confronting life finally living on my own, with time on my hands that is all mine. Have to say, I quite like it. Weekends with friends? Sure! Weekends on my own. Absolutely! Sunday morning routines and songs that are Sunday songs only? Of course! Wednesday evening living room dances because it’s Wednesday? Too right!

This week, I went for a long window-shop with my sister and mum, met up with my closest friend for a day, went to a puppet show (for grown-ups, and shut up) with another, made bread, went to a talk on climate science and Hollywood (hint: they don’t always get the facts right, kids!), cooked risotto and vegetarian pasties, dog-sat, chatted to an ex-colleague-and-now-friend for 2 hours, worked. My slightly skewed weekend is dawning (I work Saturdays, so weekends are Sunday-Monday) with the promise of cooked breakfasts, walks in the countryside and impromptu visits.

So yes, I miss my Teen, but I know they’re happy and thriving, making their own way. When they take off for a year studying in Canada in August, their own way will be a long way from mine. This phase of my life as a parent hasn’t ended (my Mum has confidently – and a little wearily – assured me that is never ends), but a whole new phase has started up alongside it.

Exciting-terrifying. Excifying, if you will.

Actually, probably don’t .

 

 

 

Rounding Off

Well now, hasn’t that been a year to make you stop and think. The Teen and I have been through some upheavals: family health, new job for me, new house in a city for both of us, the loss of our much-mourned family pet, entering final year of A Levels for her. We are both now taking some serious breathing space (although the mountain of coursework in her room suggests my break may be more relaxing than hers) before 2016 lands.

This year, Christmas is being hosted by me as we finally live in a house big enough to fit us, my parents, my sister, brother in law and the two small things. We have a dining room! This is the first time in my adult life I’ve had one of these, and it’s a constant battle to stop it becoming a dumping ground. *clears post and papers on a daily basis*

Looking back through my reading diary, I can pinpoint exactly when I started catching the train: the number of books I get through a month suddenly shoots up as I find myself with at least an hour and a half each day with time on my hands and the reality of train travel in England to escape.

So this, patient readers of this long abandoned blog, is my list of Things Wot I Have Read in 2015.

January: Lucia in London, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, London Train, The Bleeding Heart, Waterlog, The Bucket, a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, Field Notes from a Hidden City.

February: Badgerlands, Wind in the Willows, My Family & Other Disasters, Grimm Tales for Young and Old, An Accidental Jubilee, Have His Carcass, Blessings in Disguise, This I Know: Notes on Unravelling the Heart.

March: H is for Hawk, Britain AD, Ordeal by Innocence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Death Must Advertise, The Morville Hours, Gingerbread, Mrs. Hemingway.

April: Home Fires, The Taste of Apple Seeds, Clothes Music Boys, The Crow Road, How to be Alone, Lady Susan, Turn of the Screw, The First Wives Club, Bad Blood.

May: Hope and Glory, The Gravity of Birds, Murder on the Links, The Thing Around Your Neck, Murder in the Mews, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Town in Bloom, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, Somewhere Towards the End, Elizabeth is Missing, The Secret History.

June: A Slip of the Keyboard, Howards End is on the Landing, Are We Nearly There Yet, The Tiger in the Smoke, In Pursuit of Love, Anything Goes, Love in a Cold Climate, The Best Man to Die, Don’t Tell Alfred, Unkindness of Ravens, Like Water for Chocolate, The Veiled One, McCarthy’s Bar, The Last Cigarette.

July: In the Blue House, Diary of a Nobody, The Invisible Woman, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Perfect, A Steep Approach to Garbadale, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Moving Finger, The Ghost Road, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, Taken at the Flood, The Years, The Shock of the Fall, The Monogram Murders, Trouble for Lucia, A Murder of Quality.

August: Death Comes to Pemberley, Toast, Ladder of Years, The Second Life of Sally Mottram, The Castle of Adventure, Tales from the City, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Yes Please, Do No Harm, Unfinished Business, Waiting for Jeffrey, Instructions for a Heatwave, The Thoughts & Happenings of Wilfrid Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, The Reluctant Bride.

September: Stoner, Notes from an Exhibition, The Man Who Rained, Etta & Otto & Russell & James, A Glass of Blessings, Complete Sherlock Holmes short stories, And When Did You Last See Your Father, What a Carve Up, Appointment with Death, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Pause Between Acts, Pale Horse Pale Rider, The Oxford Murders, Thou Shell of Death.

October: Prodigal Summer, Some Tame Gazelle, Heartbreak, The Voyage Out, To Love & Be Wise, Excellent Women, After Me Comes the Flood, A Shilling for Candles, The Singing Sands, It Could Happen to You, F Scott Fitzgerald Selected Short Stories, All the Pretty Horses.

November: The Rector’s Daughter, Quartet in Autumn, Unnatural Death, Gaudy Night, Forgotten Paths, Mystery in White, Wuthering Heights, Angels and Insects, James Lees-Milne diaries 1942-54.

December: The Miniaturist, The Bloody Chamber, Marianne, The Thirteenth Tale, Flight Behaviour, Station Eleven, Civil to Strangers, The Lovers of Pound Hill.

In all, a total of 134, or 2 and a half a week; June, July, August and September saw the papery floodgates open and I could feel myself absorbing words like water on a hot day. Am also pleased to note that my taste for genteel crime novels, preferably set in the 1930 or thereabouts, continues unabated (they are the best to read in the bath). This is also the year I discovered and inhaled any Barbara Pym I could lay my hands on – she is unparalleled in skewering, with pin point accuracy, the painful truths that underpin our lives in the briefest of sentences, whilst doing so with humour and compassion. All those in italics are the ones that I would gladly pick up to reread again and again.

And then there are these. Books so breathtakingly excellent that I loved them to the point of sitting there for long minutes after I’d read the last word, unable to let the book go, but was also seized with a blinding envy that I can’t/don’t write as well as the authors do. Elizabeth is Missing (yes, the hype was worth it), Stoner, After Me Comes the Flood, Ella & Otto & Russell & James, Station Eleven. More than once I found myself deep breathing on a train, trying desperately not to cry (and failing in the case of Stoner which broke my heart), and trying to remind myself that these were all fictional characters.

As if their being fictional should matter. A truly great writer will transcend that barrier between paper and person, and help the reader access a depth of emotion they never previously thought to acknowledge.

Over Christmas I have Lila, The Haunting of Hill House, Middlemarch (for some reason, I have borrowed 2 copies from the library) and A Spool of Blue Thread to read. Happy days.

I wish you all a book-filled, loving Christmas. May your stocking be full of paperbacks of the bestest kind.

An Entirely Unscientific Life Theory in which I Leave the Door Slightly Ajar

For a long time, I’ve held the entirely unscientifically tested theory that every three to four years something comes along and shakes me from my foundations. Some of these things are naturally occurring disasters … and delights. Birth, death, illness, wellness. That sort of thing.

And some of them are self-inflicted, for better or worse. Marriage, divorce, job changes etc. You know, those *simple* things.

Well, not for nothing did my word for the year turn out to be ‘new’. It would seem that I am due another self-inflicted occurrence for I am in the process of a new Big Something.

After 10 years working where I currently do, I’m off to a Big City for a bigger role and a bigger future than I thought possible twelve months ago.

It’s scary and exhilarating. Terrifying and terrific. At the end of May I will wave goodbye to a team I have known for many years. This place has been where I’ve grown, adapted, survived. Even thrived. And we’ve weathered all the life changes above together. They have been the best team; and, as always with the people you love, I shall miss them terribly.

But. I am so ready for this change.

I think I am ready to let this blog go now too. It may reappear in another incarnation several months down the line when things have settled and I’ve made the transition to city life. Maybe by then I’ll have learned to be more comfortable in heels than wellies, to carry a little (or large) handbag balanced in the crook of one arm whilst sipping on an espresso, to resemble a graceful person rather than an over-enthusiastic puppy.

Somehow I doubt it. And somehow I doubt it will matter.

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